Nod your head if you think a port call to Nassau involves either sun and sand or shopping? I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And while some people look forward to sitting on a beach or hitting the jewelry shops, that’s never been my thing. So I’ve always taken to staying on ship when a cruise calls on Nassau.
But on a recent cruise visit to the port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.
I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.
I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played roles in the American Revolution and Civil War, and were a hot-bed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.
And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch is just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, its often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.
All of these facts, and more, were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian tour company launched two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on a three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.
As it turned out, the tour was one of the highlights of my weeklong Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a port of call that I have always dismissed for its 3 S’s (sun, sand and shopping).
Among the highlights of the tour were:
Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.
Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there’s usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.
An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. O.K., so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4-5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event, visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.
Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family who owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But as a chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.
Greek salad. The Greek salad at Athena Café itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street) and that the restaurant owner’s son is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.
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